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Protests, rallies and marches are as much a fixture on the University of Montana campus as the brick buildings themselves.

For much of the past decade, that activism has also translated into political involvement, with at least one state lawmaker in every session who was also a UM student. More young adults are throwing their names in state legislative races, and there’s always a healthy representation of UM students testifying at Board of Regent meetings and legislative hearings.    

Considering the number of times UM students have flexed their activist muscles over the years, it came as a surprise last week when, hours before the filing deadline, only a handful of students had filed to run for the many open seats on the Associated Students of the University of Montana Senate, the most local form of government available to students.

And only one person filed to run for each of the top three seats – president, vice president and business manager. That means no campaigns. No general election.

“It’s never happened in my memory,” said Will Selph, election committee chair. “This is unusual.”

Students could only guess about the lack of interest in running for UM’s student government. Some said students take their cues from what happens at the national level – health care debates aren’t as interesting as a presidential election. Some wondered if ASUM spreads itself too thin. Others said schoolwork doesn’t leave much time for extracurricular activities. Maybe the economy has forced more students to take jobs. Or it’s possible the interest in ASUM just naturally ebbs and flows.

Whatever the reason, the lack of involvement has not gone unnoticed.

 

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“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Matt Fennell, ASUM president. “The whole process of elections creates healthy dialogue.”

Just three hours before the filing deadline last week, only 10 students had gathered the required number of signatures on petitions indicating their intent to run for one of the 20 available seats.

A rush of last-minute petitions eventually flooded the ASUM office. Election organizers breathed a sigh of relief. At least with 27 students throwing their names in the hat, there would be an election. 

Last year, 31 students ran for ASUM Senate. In 2006, so many students filed to run ASUM held a primary to wittle the candidates down to a manageable number.

Excitement at the national level tends to filter down to college campuses and translates into more students running for ASUM, said Selph, a comprehensive social science major. Sometimes that excitement is partisan.

There’s a history of aspiring politicians cutting their teeth by running for ASUM before moving up into higher political ranks. Dustin Frost, former state director for Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, is one; Barrett Kaiser, who for years served as a staffer for Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, is another; and recent UM graduate Bryce Bennett is now running for the Legislature as a Democrat from Missoula.

Having a contentious issue helps generate interest, too, Selph said, pointing to when ASUM discussed creating the Revolving Energy Loan Fund, which uses a $4 optional student fee to pay for energy-saving projects on campus.

The Legislature itself also generates student interest, said Emily Koffler, president of the UM College Democrats. 

“There’s more business during the legislative year,” she said.

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Carli Amatuzio, a sophomore from Minnesota, was among those who decided to run for ASUM Senate. Amatuzio, president of the College Republicans, was as surprised as anyone by the lack of candidates. The Republican group on campus made a concerted effort to recruit candidates to ensure their group had a voice.

“It’s actually baffling to me,” she said. “More people are getting involved politically. I don’t know if (students) are not hearing about (ASUM) or if they don’t understand that you can actually make a difference. It’s mind-boggling. I would’ve assumed more people would want to get involved.”

Emily Schembra, 21, is an organizer with Students for Economic and Social Justice, a historically active and outspoken student group at UM, which doesn’t hesitate to protest. 

In 2008, members of SESJ took over UM President George Dennison’s office for six hours, demanding the university adopt an anti-sweatshop labor program. The students were arrested.

After that, many SESJ members ran for ASUM Senate to use more diplomatic means to arrive at change. Schembra was one of them. Every year since, the group has made an effort to encourage at least one or two SESJ members to run.

At the same time, though, Schembra found herself working on issues that she was less passionate about. So this year, instead of serving on ASUM, she worked specifically on SESJ issues.

“You figure out you can work really hard on stuff that’s important to your group and more efficiently instead of spreading myself out,” said the 21-year-old. “Our movement may be just as strong without having members on Senate.”

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 In his glass office in the University Center, Fennell has a picture of Public Safety Director Jim Lemcke arresting him in Dennison’s office two years ago with a grinning Jim Foley, the executive vice president, standing in the background.

“The word ‘student government’ has a stigma,” Fennell said. “Some people think it’s not relevant.”

As an activist and now as someone who heads a government organization that funds more than 100 student groups and manages a budget that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars, Fennell sees the need for both civil disobedience and the democratic process.

 “That’s why I ran,” said the ASUM president and SESJ member. “We were underrepresented.”

Today, Fennell can rattle off other student groups that are underrepresented on ASUM, such as graduate and law students. While UM has always had a flair for protests and rallies, there’s an equal need for student government, he said.

One gets the dialogue rolling, he said. The other sees change through.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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